Review | Dervishes by Beth Helms 

The White King: A Novel

by Gyorgy Dragomán

Published by Houghton Mifflin

320 pages, 2008

Buy it online



Chess with Robots

Reviewed by Cherie Thiessen

Somewhere in Transylvania during Romania’s repressive Communist regime in the 1980s, eleven-year old Djata is playing chess with a frighteningly real looking African robot. Surrounded by various spooky African “trophies” owned by one of this country’s corrupt military leaders, Djata is soon aware that he cannot win. Refusing to give up, he grabs the robot’s white king and thrusts it in his pocket. He would rather steal than give up.

It’s this scene, in “Africa,” the chapter that gives its name to the book’s title. Not surprisingly, it’s a definitive chapter, containing all that has come before and will come after: humour, surrealism, irony, horror. Thematically it shows the defiance and naïveté of a child who will not give up, and who will wrestle out for himself in spite of all odds, a life that contains hope, dreams, friends and fun.

The 34-year old author agrees that there is a lot of his own childhood in this second novel; Dragomán grew up in totalitarian Romania, under Ceausescu’s police state.

The White King is actually a series of 18 short stories, all told from Djata’s point of view as he attends school, plays with his friends, and attempts to survive with his mother. His father has been picked up by the military police for signing a petition; his grandfather has since fallen from grace with the party as a result of this, and his teacher mother is in danger of losing her job, as they struggle to survive in the face of shortages, fear and intimidation.

Clinging to the belief that he will see his father again, and hanging on to the fiction his mother has created for him -- that his father, a scientist, is needed on a special project -- the son will not lose his hope. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, as in the first, “Tulips,” where he steals the flowers in order to continue a tradition his father had begun of giving his wife tulips every year on their anniversary, and “View,” where his alcoholic grandfather tries to connect with him. Some are amusing, as in “Jump,” where Djata and his friend are trying to injure themselves so that they don’t have to face the music at school for gambling away the school’s parade fund. Some are frightening, as in “War,” when a children’s feud threatens to mimic the same carnage and violence as a real war, andPickax,” where workers interrupt an innocent game of school soccer in order to threaten, bully and coerce students into manual labour. All, however, echo the hollow sound of hopelessness. As adults, we can see the horror in every situation and watch and fear for this spirited and sensitive boy who is busy building his life on a precipice and snatching fun in between the threats: school bullies want to beat him up, the coach nearly kills his friend, party hacks bully him into working in a dangerous area, the secret police follow him, a gang war threatens bloodshed, and a teacher is called “Iron Fist” by his students because he punches them in the kidneys so hard sometimes that there’s blood in their urine.

Creating a novel out of a series of short stories is not easy and often a work can suffer a subsequent loss of unity, flow and development, but in this case it may well be the perfect format. Each story is so devastating, and so many of them so wrenching and depressing that the reader almost needs the space between each short story to absorb and to recover. 

Creating a novel from the point of view of an 11-year old boy is also not easy, but clearly the author is up to this challenge as well. He wants the irony between the abnormal violence of the youth’s world and his normal, mischievous sense of fun to be evident. He wants us to see the considerable distance between Djata’s perception and the bleak reality.

Perhaps most frightening of all about the use of a child protagonist is how readers will slowly begin to realize that Djata himself, in accepting the violence around him as the norm, is becoming corrupted. The constant intimidation, threats and brutality that he is exposed to daily are insidiously teaching him that in order to survive, he must emulate his role models. We begin to understand how monsters are made.

This is Dragomán's second novel, but the first translated into English. Published in 2005 in Hungary, it was awarded the Sandor Marai Prize, one of that country’s most prestigious literary prizes. Subsequently, it has come out in more than 20 countries, and this year Paul Olchvary’s English translation has made it available to English speaking readers.

A work like this makes you realize why so many totalitarian leaders and repressive regimes persecuted artists and feared writers. The pen really is more powerful than the sword. | August 2008

Cherie Thiessen has been a scriptwriter, playwright, creative writing instructor and -- for the past 10 years -- a travel writer and book reviewer. She was the review columnist for Focus on Women Magazine for eight years and has also written numerous reviews for magazines including BC Bookworld, Monday Magazine, Pacific Yachting, Cottage Magazine, The Driftwood News, Linnear Reflections and Douglas College's Event Magazine.